Styling Tweaks And Clever “Voice Of God” System Enhance a Minivan Still Alone In Class With Available All-Wheel Drive

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What will change?

A revised grille, available LED headlamps, and addition of the company’s parent-assisting Driver Easy Speak voice-amplifying system highlight updates to this versatile minivan.

Should I wait for the 2016 model?

This gets complicated. An all-new generation of this people mover was on track for model-year 2017. But it may be delayed as the Japanese automaker wrestles with engineering a new vehicle architecture that’ll underpin not only this van but many of its other passenger vehicles. That opens the possibility the ’16 will receive another round of changes to styling and features to keep it fresh as it heads toward its next redesign, now likely for model-year 2018.

Should I buy the current 2015 instead?

If the ’15 updates suit you. No guarantee what the next model year holds, though you can be confident this minivan’s basic dimensions, engineering, and shape won’t change. If buying now fills a life-stage need, go ahead. You’ll benefit from some key upgrades, including a redecorated cabin available with more soft-touch surfaces and a rearview backup camera as standard even on the entry-level L model. The lineup ascends from there with LE, SE, XLE, and Limited trims. The LE, XLE, and Limited are the only minivans available with all-wheel drive (AWD) in addition to standard front-wheel drive.

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Will the styling be different?

Subtly. The grille doesn’t change shape but gets a new insert pattern. And some models look fancier thanks to LED daytime running lamps and illuminate the road more effectively with LED headlamps. Inside, the gauges adopt more modern graphics and the main cluster can be accompanied by a newly available 4.2-inch color display that projects turn-by-turn navigation directions. Some cabin panels are upgraded. And black leather upholstery with white stitching is newly available. Otherwise, this is the same basic van that debuted for the 2011 model year. It follows standard practice with dual sliding side rear doors – conveniently power operated on all but the L model. SEs and above also have a power liftgate. Along with the Honda Odyssey, this is the only minivan that can seat three across in the second row to accommodate eight passengers (in LE, SE, and XLE trim), or seven with second-row buckets. Note also that it’s among the few vehicles of any sort with LATCH anchors for up to four child safety seats. Expect visual differences between the models to remain limited to details like different finishes on exterior trim. The sport-flavored SE will again get color-keyed lower-body aero addenda, plus a “smoked chrome” grille surround. It also has 19-inch alloy wheels, versus 18s on the Limited and AWD models, and 17s on the others

Any mechanical changes?

The suspension is retuned to improve comfort and control, but that’s the only change. The sole engine is again a 266-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 that pairs with a six-speed automatic transmission. No minivan offers a hybrid model, but Sienna’s AWD does give it something unmatched in this class. There’s no discernible difference in ground clearance and it isn’t designed for off-roading but instead for extra traction on wet or snowy pavement or on gravel surfaces. It normally operates in front-drive, then automatically shuffles power to the rear wheels to restore traction if sensors detect tire slip. We’re pleased to see better ride quality on the agenda because the AWD system eliminates the under-floor spare tire in favor of run-flat tires, which tend to generate lots of impact harshness on bad pavement. Nonetheless, try before you buy.

Will fuel economy improve?

With no mechanical changes, expect EPA ratings to remain 18/25/21 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive, which is around the median for minivans. With AWD, ratings drop to 16/23/19, which is worst in class but a tradeoff for the all-season security of the additional grip.

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Will it have new features?

Yes, some cool ones, too. Most versions retain a central 6.1-inch dashboard touchscreen, even with navigation, but upper grades are available with a 7-inch screen that now has smartphone-like icon “swipe” capability, plus the capacity to activate the automaker’s Driver Easy Speak function. Introduced on the recently redesigned Toyota Highlander SUV, this feature is triggered by a touching a screen icon and uses a microphone to amplify the driver’s voice through the vehicle’s audio speakers. It’s a great way to be heard even in the third row without having to shout. In a similar vein, a newly optional convex “conversation” mirror folds from the ceiling, allowing front-seaters to keep an eye on what’s transpiring in the second and third rows. The rearview camera is now standard on all models and adopts the wideview and backup guidelines previously limited to the version in XLE and Limited. Overall, the L version remains fairly basic with its only standout feature being tri-zone climate control. The LE upgrades the climate control to fully automatic and adds power front seats, the power side doors and liftgate, rear window sunshades, and the company’s Entune infotainment system. SE versions have the same creature comforts as the LE and include a firmer sport suspension, low-profile 19-inch tires, and the unique wheels and body trim. XLE adds leather upholstery, heated front seats, and a power sunroof. Limiteds have a dual-pane panoramic sunroof and front- and rear-obstacle detection. A power-folding 3rd-row seat is standard on the front-drive Limited but is not available with all-wheel drive. Optional on the XLE are rear DVD entertainment, rear-obstacle detection, and keyless entry with pushbutton engine start. Limited-exclusive options include auto high-beam headlights, rain-sensing wipers, and adaptive cruise control that can maintain a set following distance. Among key extras, SE models and above should again be available with the Dual-View Entertain Center with a 16.4-inch fold-down ceiling widescreen capable of showing simultaneous split images from two sources – a DVD and a video game, for example. RCA jacks, two 120-volt power points, and a pair of wireless headphones are included. LE and XLE models are also available with a second-row right-side bucket that power adjusts to provide assisted access for the disabled.

How will 2016 prices be different?

They increased on average about $400 between the 2013 and ’14 models and a similarly modest hike is likely. Note that estimated base prices in this report include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which in this case is around $860 for factory-distributed Toyotas. Expect a ‘15 base-price range of around $28,200-$41,500 with front-wheel drive and $34,200-$42,990 with AWD.

When will it come out?

It should be on sale by September 2014.

Best competitors:

Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Ford Transit Connect, Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest

What’s a cool feature?

Upper-level models include the brand’s Entune App Suite. You download a free application to your smartphone then connect the phone to the car via Bluetooth (Android phones) or USB (Apple iPhone). Once paired, you can access a number of applications via the vehicle’s touchscreen. These include streaming audio from Pandora and iHeartRadio, restaurant reservations from OpenTable, reviews from Yelp, and Bing web searches.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]